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STAR TURNS: Bond star haunted by school tragedy

British actor Sean Connery, 1968. - Credit: Photoshot/Getty Images

In the age of the coronavirus, it’s perhaps as well not to dwell too much on six degrees of separation, the idea that all people on average are six – or fewer – social connections away from each other.

Still, I was struck by how true this was just over a decade ago when I found myself chatting to Sir Sean Connery about various allegations that his former wife Diane Cilento had made about him in an interview. In his typically trenchant way, the former James Bond star had memorably described her to me as an “insane woman” who was “prepared to stoop to the level of the gutter” in her attempts to tarnish him.

The star-cross’d lovers had a son together in Jason, and, in the midst of our conversation, he mentioned Millfield – the school in Somerset where he had briefly sent the future actor – and he said it was a “rubbish” place and that he’d bitterly regretted the decision to send him there. It so happened I had been at the school at the same time as Jason and I knew what had caused him to say this.

Jason had walked into a changing room and found a 13-year-old boy had hanged himself. He’d tried to save him, but it was too late. The boy had been badly bullied and had been informed that day that he’d be staying on at the school during the summer holidays with one of those who was victimising him. The tragedy caused Connery to remove Jason from the school and send him instead to Gordonstoun. Connery was still – just as much as I am – haunted by what happened.

The tragic boy had started at the school at the same time as me, and in the same house, and my parents had withdrawn me from the school, too, as a result. That shared experience created an unexpected bond between Connery and me. I don’t know the truth of the allegations Cilento had made about him, but it was clear that, despite his tough guy reputation, Connery had a deep sense of right and wrong. He spoke movingly about how, all those years on, he still felt “furious” about what had happened, that he believed the school had failed in its duty to the dead boy and his parents and how he could not bear to imagine the pain his death had caused his family.

I’d originally got to know Connery through his French-Moroccan wife Micheline Roquebrune, who I had interviewed years earlier about her career as a painter. It always seemed to me they were a couple strangely unchanged by wealth and success: she was inclined to tease Connery – which he took in good part – and certainly he never regarded being a film star as a proper job for a grown man. 

He related how, when he had returned to his native Edinburgh after making his name in acting, the driver of his taxi had been struck by how he knew the names of all the streets. Connery had laconically replied that he used to deliver milk in the city. The strangely unworldly driver asked him what he did for a living and Connery had replied: “That’s not so easy to answer.”

The actor’s real passions had always been off-screen – his family, golf and Scottish independence, among them. He had long been a member and supporter of the Scottish National Party, and this, I discovered, had made for a complicated relationship with Rupert Murdoch, whose family also originated from north of the border. Initially dubious about independence for Scotland, Murdoch has in recent years apparently been coming round to the idea.

Connery, who was making The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox when we’d once chatted, may well have been instrumental in bringing the media tycoon round to the idea. He admitted they’d talked about it. Interestingly, when the News of the World was later embroiled in the phone-hacking scandal, Connery let it be known that he had no interest in seeking any kind of redress from Murdoch’s now-defunct tabloid.

Connery announced his retirement in 2006 and resisted attempts to appear in one last Indiana Jones film for a humongous sum of money. I know, too, that Sir Roger Moore tried to persuade him to get together with all the other living James Bond stars for a film that would have served as a homage to the franchise, but Connery was having none of it. He said retirement was just proving to be  “too much damned fun”.